Lens, Prism, Palimpsest
I am thinking of the first three sentences that begin Samuel R. Delany’s secret literary masterpiece, Dhalgren: “to wound the autumnal city. So howled out for the world to give him a name. The in-dark answered with the wind.” I remember being jolted that a novel would begin like this, as if in mid-sentence. It was inexplicable and seductive, and proved irresistible to this reader. I became obsessed with Dhalgren and finished it, all 800 pages, in a few blistering days. What a strange sensation it was to inhabit the imaginary city of Bellona – a vague disaster zone sprinkled with unexpected pockets of enchanted garden, dissonance commingled with bursts of beauty – a place populated by drifters and hustlers, madmen and savants, lovers and poets, a city where something had gone ambiguously wrong, and a world where the usual laws of physics perhaps no longer applied. Strangely cut off and isolated, Bellona is in this world but strangely not of the world as we typically know it. Is it that time is running backwards? Or sideways? Or have time and history become circular, a palimpsest that gets continually, but incompletely, erased and then written over? Lived, witnessed and recorded, then scraped away and re-inscribed?
If asked, I would be hard pressed to describe Dhalgren’s plot. I’m not even sure there is one. The narrative seems designed to sabotage the usual expectations, to dare, challenge, almost taunt the reader into taking a narrative leap into the unknown. It is a story that dismisses familiar formulas and is stingy in relinquishing even a fraction of its mysteries, a literary outlier that is demanding and defiantly unresolved. It is also brilliant, beautiful, alluring, addictive, thrilling and transformative.
The poems are moments when I had the intensity to see, and the energy to build some careful analog that completed the seeing. ― Samuel Delany
These thoughts come to mind because the first time I saw Jack Barnosky’s work, it felt like an imaginary leap into a world reminiscent of Dhalgren. And I remember a similar excitement at being transported by an artistic voice – in this instance a vision, and a way of seeing and inscribing – that seemed intent on ignoring what had come before and starting over, starting from scratch. It takes a particular type of creative courage to set up camp on the far outskirts of the expected. I remember feeling like the first man, amazed that this world exists, wondering if the sun will rise again, asking if it will rain again, if the river will continue to run.
Barnosky’s world – his images – runs opposite to how photography usually operates. It is a medium that typically points toward clarity and explication. Photographs generally seek to show, reveal, explain. It most often speaks through singular instances, isolated flashes.
Barnosky builds meaning differently, through an intricate, complex, prolonged vocabulary. In these tableaus there are no quick glances, simple explanations, or easy answers.
His work traffics in longer moments, gestures with more duration. His images contain whole stories, complete histories. They are ambiguous allegories, long and langorous poems. Barnosky isn’t making visual sentences or even paragraphs, he is building a landscape, an imaginary metropolis, an entire world.
We tend to think of photographs as exclusively tied to the visible world, the waking world. But Barnosky’s lens takes on the refractive power of a prism. Rather than focusing, it fractures light, opening up unseen worlds. He transports us to alternate landscapes, into the dreams of others, towards some secret dark side. The literal and the concrete have been replaced by symbol and metaphor; an interior language, a tribal mythology, a collective unconscious.
Be grateful for anything that still cuts. Dissonance is a beauty that familiarity hasn’t destroyed yet. ― Richard Powers
This mythology, while constructed primarily as a landscape, is also populated by people, and it is the images that feel more closely aligned with portraiture that reveal the work’s generosity, humanity, and hope. The presence of these figures, with their open and direct gazes, engenders a faith that even in our dessicated modern landscape, there are irrepressible traces of human worth and warmth, that we live in the midst of the heroic, in a world inhabited by angelic anonymous souls.
This imagined world is heavily atmospheric. It is hazy, often semi-abandoned, all contour and swirling mists, defined by muted colors that nevertheless convey a potent smell and feel. Surface and texture become a language. Information as texture. Texture as information. Cypher. Totem. Meaning smudges.
Fully engaging these images requires that we step beyond their photographic origins as concrete, literal documents. Just as present in the work are the traces of what has been altered or manipulated, obscured or excised. These marks, these gestures of omission and erasure leave behind a tension that shades our reading, giving the narratives their mythic resonance. This calculus of both addition and subtraction fuels questions about permanence and temporality, what can be seen and presented, what can be completely removed or covered over, and what refuses to yield, what persists. The images point to the deep, and often invisible, history that always lies just beneath the surface of appearances. Barnosky achieves this through his reliance on the act of accumulation. His images, like skin, are built up from multiple layers and are alive with a visceral thickness.
Do you run away or toward? ― Richard Powers
In Dhalgren, the main protagonist – Kidd – keeps a poetry journal which provides one of the main anchor points for the narrative. As the story progresses, text mysteriously appears and disappears from the journal pages. Kidd erases portions, writes over old entries, repeats and re-locates refrains, erases more, repeats again. The idea of the palimpsest as a metaphor for the true nature of creation and the construction of meaning was a compelling revelation when I first read Delany’s novel. Jack Barnosky has allowed me to revisit those ideas through a wholly different visual language, and in important respects has made them entirely new.
Barnosky has created an aesthetic that is rich in sensuality and surface. While most photographs purport to function as windows, making their surface as transparent as possible, Barnosky’s work dismantles the photographic transparent window, relishing the physicality (even in the virtual realm) usually absent from the photographic surface, reminding us that what we are seeing is, after all, an artifact, a construction, a mark. A gesture. One that is deeply subjective, unique, imperfect, human.
images: © copyright 2019 Jack Barnosky. No use without permission. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
words: © copyright 2019 Joseph Squier. No use without permission. Contact: email@example.com